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The Glasgow Boy from Belfast: Sir John Lavery (20 March 1856 - 10 January 1941)

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Alison Mitchelson | 11:00 UK time, Thursday, 30 August 2012

Being brought up south of Glasgow and studying history of art, I was aware of Sir John Lavery and his wonderful work, but after living and working in Belfast for a few years, he and his work became close to my heart, feeling a close affinity with him, me being the Belfast girl from Glasgow (well near enough) and he the Glasgow boy from Belfast! (Lavery first came to Glasgow as an orphan runaway at the age of 15).

Sir John Lavery (1856–1941), RA, RSA by Harrington Mann

Sir John Lavery (1856-1941), RA, RSA (Harrington Mann, Collection: Glasgow Museums)

You can view on Your Paintings over 300 works by Lavery from national and local collections all over the UK, of particular interest to me for this Belfast-born ‘Glasgow Boy’ are the collections of the National Museums Northern Ireland in Belfast and those in Glasgow Museums. NMNI‘s collection comprises thirty-nine of Lavery’s paintings donated to the city of Belfast by the artist himself in 1929. The collection represents all stages of his career and contains some of his (and my) best-loved paintings. Glasgow Museums 142 oils were gifted by the artist in 1935. 

Lavery’s big break came in 1888, when he was commissioned to paint the State Visit of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria to the Glasgow International Exhibition. You can see this full scale painting, which measures an impressive 256.5 x 406.4 cm, at Kelvingrove Art Gallery.

State Visit of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria to the Glasgow International Exhibition, 1888 by John Lavery

State Visit of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria to the Glasgow International Exhibition, 1888 (John Lavery, Collection: Glasgow Museums)

Although known today largely as a society portrait painter, some of Lavery’s most celebrated works are more personal in nature, being portraits of his second wife and muse, Hazel Martyn, who became the subject of over 400 of his works. The Green Coat (1926), in the NMNI collection was not only the artist’s but also the sitter’s favourite portrait. Much admired, the painting went on to be used as an advert for Ponds Cream. The collection also contains many paintings made during Lavery’s travels to Switzerland, Florida and particularly Tangier, which Lavery visited almost every winter from the 1890s until 1920s. Paintings such as Tangier Bay, Sunshine (1920) convey an unmistakable serene atmosphere, the obvious reason for his annual sojourns.

Lavery was a man who sought to depict his era, as evident in a mural commission for the banqueting hall of the City Chambers in Glasgow. Modern Glasgow (1901), which can still be seen in Glasgow’s City Chambers, and in the preparatory painting Shipbuilding on the Clyde (1900) at GMRC, which depicts ordinary men hard at work at the Fairfield Shipyard in Govan

Shipbuilding on the Clyde (sketch) by John Lavery

Shipbuilding on the Clyde (sketch) (John Lavery, Collection: Glasgow Museums)

Throughout his career and travels, Lavery retained strong ties to Glasgow and Ireland (as do I). During the 1920s the Laverys visited Ireland every August, splitting their time and loyalties between Belfast and Dublin. Lavery received honorary degrees from Dublin and Queen’s University, Belfast. In the 1930s following the death of Hazel and his daughter Eileen, Lavery, heart-broken, returned to live in Ireland with his step-daughter Alice. He died of natural causes in County Kilkenny, aged 84.

You can read more about Sir John Lavery on the PCF's website.

Alison Mitchelson is a Catalogue Coordinator (Northern Ireland) at the PCF


  • Comment number 1.

    What an interesting geographical connection between you and Sir John Lavery. I also remember seeing a photograph of the amazing Mary Ann Doonan, at Kearney, the National Trust's beautiful coastal property on the Ards Peninsula, Northern Ireland. Mary Ann Doonan was also painted by Sir John Lavery.
    She was the most prominent figure in Kearney’s history. Born in 1841, she lived to be 99. She was a woman of many talents – a midwife, flowerer of linen, layer-out of corpses and notably captain of the “She-Cruiser” a fishing boat crewed entirely by women. Mary Ann’s celebrity status attracted many wealthy and famous visitors. In the early 20th century, Lord and Lady Londonderry of Mount Stewart visited and brought Spanish Princesses to meet her. The noted Irish painters Sir John Lavery and Charles Edmund also visited, and both painted her.
    I presume Lavery's portrait of Mary Ann Doonan will be included in the NI PCF catalogue. Maggie

  • Comment number 2.

    Maggie, sadly the original painting is in private hands so is not in the catalogue, as are so many of Lavery's works, especially in NI, such a s a lovely little intimate scene of the Late Lady Mairi Bury of Mount Stewart, playing on the Lough Shore and hanging in the private rooms at Mount Stewart. I have had the priviledge of seeing this wonderful painting and maybe one day more will get that chance too.


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